January 12, 2014 2:16 pm

Little room for dissent as Egyptians vote on new constitution

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Shirts, some depicting Abdel Fattah al-S

Shirts depicting General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi displayed for sale on Tahrir Square, Cairo

Egyptians preparing to vote for their new constitution on Tuesday are being bombarded by a single message: vote Yes amid expectations that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted the elected Islamist president in July, will run for president.

“A Yes to the constitution is a No to terrorism and foreign and domestic conspiracies,” a television ad repeatedly tells viewers. Hundreds of billboards on the capital’s streets and bridges simply say Yes in giant letters, and are sponsored by unnamed “Egyptians who love their country”.

There is little tolerance towards those who do not support the charter. An attempt to launch a No campaign was stopped in its tracks when posters were removed and the campaign organisers arrested.

The referendum is the first vote since the July coup that deposed Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first elected president whose Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group has been the subject of a fierce security crackdown and has been officially designated a terrorist organisation.

A high voter turnout and strong endorsement of the constitution is seen as vital by the authorities as they seek to legitimise the post-coup political process and sideline the Brotherhood, erasing its electoral victories of the past three years.

Many Egyptians hope approval of the charter will be followed by a formal announcement that Gen Sisi, the defence minister, will run for president. He is understood to be awaiting the results of the referendum to decide if he will enter the fray.

In a video of a speech on Saturday, Gen Sisi, said he was considering a presidential run. “If I run for [the] presidency, it would be by the request of the people and by a mandate from my army, as we work within a democracy,” he said, according to the state-run Mena news agency.

On Sunday, Egypt’s benchmark EGX30 shot up 2 per cent, nearing a three-year high, on news of Gen Sisi’s potential presidential run and a stock buyback by EFG-Hermes, the country’s largest investment bank.

For now, the aim of the referendum is to surpass the numbers who voted in the referendum for the 2012 constitution, which was drafted by Islamists and approved by a 64 per cent majority on a low, 33 per cent turnout.

The military-backed government is doing everything it can to ensure the vote’s success. Parties that supported the overthrow of Mr Morsi – from the ultraconservative Islamists of Nour, to liberals and leftwingers – have been intensifying public outreach in support of the charter.

The new constitution offers some improvements in basic rights, analysts say, but critics charge that it enshrines the military’s independence from civilian oversight.

It also allows the army to continue to try civilians in military courts and introduces a provision that, for the next eight years (two presidential terms), top commanders must approve the president’s choice of defence minister.

A senior military official told the Financial Times the new measure was needed because of “the exceptional historical circumstances” in which Egypt finds itself.

He said: “In case violence erupts it would be necessary for the army to protect the state, because the army is its backbone, at least during this period of instability.”

The public mood since July has been whipped up by constant media campaigns telling Egyptians that the country is fighting a “war against terrorism”, demonising the Brotherhood and portraying dissenters and human rights groups as traitors seeking to undermine the state.

Coupled with a growing intolerance of protest, the space for dissent has shrunk to almost nothing, say democracy advocates.

Secular activists at the forefront of the 2011 revolution have been imprisoned for defying a new restrictive protest law and this week three members of the Strong Egypt party were arrested for campaigning for a no vote. They were later released.

“The idea of allowing a No campaign, even for the sake of democratic form, appears to be rejected,” said Ahmed Imam, a party spokesman. “The stream of intimidation on television is making our party members too afraid to go out on the streets.”

The Brotherhood, which organises near daily protests, has called for a boycott of the referendum. Participation would “legitimise the coup authorities and waste the blood of the martyrs who died resisting them”, said Magdi Karkar, a leader of Labour, a small party allied with the Brotherhood.

In depth

Egypt after Morsi

Protestors carry a large Egyptian flag through Tahrir Square on January 31, 2011 in Cairo

Coupled with a growing intolerance of protest, the space for dissent has shrunk to almost nothing, say democracy advocates

But even with a boycott, it is likely the military-backed authorities will secure the results they want. After three years of disruptive protests, political chaos and economic decline, many Egyptians yearn for stability and hanker for order imposed by a strong state.

“I will vote Yes because I want stability for Egypt,” said Khaled Bakry, a civil servant. “It was important to remove Morsi because he was unable to govern well. Sure, there is repression, but it exists everywhere, even in the US.”

Ahmed Mahmoud, who works for a tourism company said he, too, will support the constitution: “We are very tired. I don’t agree to anything that will hold up this country, even by one step.”

Secular and liberal parties supporting the charter say it is the best that can be achieved at the moment and reflects the actual balance of power on the ground. They say that as the country’s political forces “mature” they could press for more gains.

Sceptics, however, fear that a new repressive order may be taking shape.

“A constitution cannot be divorced from the context in which it is being written,” said Rabab al Mahdi, a political analyst. “Just like the Muslim Brotherhood did, I expect the regime to use democratic form to pass undemocratic content, such as the protest law or the random detentions of opponents including Islamists and others.”

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